Commissioned post for Aleph Null.
Female heroes get mind-controlled a lot.
Oh, superheroes in general are prone to being mind-controlled. It’s a great way to turn a physically unimposing villain into a serious threat, by essentially giving them access to the hero’s powers in the form of the hero themselves. It’s an excuse to force a look at that eternal (and eternally obnoxious question) of superhero fandom, “Who would win?”
But (and I admit I have done no actual survey of this or seen statistics) it certainly seems like female heroes are particularly prone to being mind-controlled. Of course, it’s possible I just feel that way because I saw Episode 3 of Emara, Emirates Hero just a few days after Incredibles 2, which also features a woman most prominently out of multiple mind-controlled superheroes.
Either way, seeing Emara controlled rankles, especially so early in her run. Her very existence challenges cultural boundaries and social norms, yet almost immediately she is forced under the control of what appears to be a man in a puppy mask made from a paper bag–another woman just doing what a man wants.
But in so doing, she becomes monstrous, sprouting gigantic robotic arms from her shoulder blades and rampaging unstoppably through the headquarters of whatever organization it is that Dhabian is working for. Controlled Emara, like controlled Ali a couple of episodes later, is a horrifying creature: grotesque, with her glowing eyes and massive extra arms belying her otherwise human frame, which dangles like an afterthought from her shoulders. Her behavior in this state is equally horrific, as she flings Dhabian around like a ragdoll and tears off his prosthetic limb.
Contrast “Little Girl Lost.” There, Superman’s controlling attitude toward Supergirl was depicted as natural, part of his parental (that is, patriarchal) role in Supergirl’s life. She rebelled against it, but that rebellion caused as much trouble as it solved: it is Supergirl’s fight against the new Intergang that causes Granny Goodness to summon the Female Furies who capture Superman, and Supergirl who destroys the comet-summoning device before it can be used to repel the comet. Much of the episode’s action–her heroism–consists of fixing her own mistakes, mistakes borne of not obeying Superman’s restrictions.
Here in Emara, however, the man controlling the woman is villainous, and the image of a woman controlled is monstrous. By her very nature as a superhero, Emara is extraordinary, which is to say she lies outside the circle of normativity. She is a violation of “the rules”–of who gets to be a superhero, and of what young brown girls can do. Yet she is not depicted as grotesque until she becomes obedient; the grotesque, in other words, exists not because of deviance but because of normalcy.
This reading is reinforced in Episode 5, when Emara fights controlled Ali, who has likewise transformed into a monster. She again transforms into the glowing-eyed, multi-armed “monster,” but now she is the monster that fights monsters, which as we have observed before, is the definition of a hero. It is a moment not of horror, like her previous transformation, but of excitement, an escalation of her valiant effort to save Dhabian.
The same form is horrifying or exciting, not because it becomes more or less “normal,” but according to whether it is a threat or an ally. The flipside of the grotesque is the exotic; we can fear the tentacle or fuck the tentacle. Fear the outsider or wish to learn about them. Shun the Other or embrace diversity.
But in Emara we see a third path: we can do both and neither. We can fear behaviors that are legitimately dangerous to us, and be excited (intellectually, emotionally, sexually, whatever) by behaviors that are surprising to us, without having to thereby judge the entirety of a person as “normal” or “deviant,” “grotesque” or “exotic.” We can simply recognize difference and accept it: Dhabian has fewer limbs than I do. Emara has more. That changes the worth of neither of them.
This is not to say that difference doesn’t matter. Ignoring for the moment that they are fictional characters, there are things I can do that Dhabian can’t without his prostheses, and things they let him do that I cannot. Emara is a Muslim woman raised in a culture very different from mine; that gives her a perspective I lack. But I can value the things that perspective lets her see that I cannot, while pointing out the things my perspective lets me see that she cannot, and all without declaring myself “normal” and her “Other”; I can see that we are different from each other, without needing to declare either of us (or anyone else) a normative baseline.
Remembering that Dhabian and Emara are fictional, we can also talk about them as representation. It is important for people who frequently feel Othered to see people like them depicted as a norm, yes, but it is also important for people who frequently see themselves as the norm to see someone they frequently Other depicted as a norm. To make people who feel Othered feel less so, and people who feel normal to feel less so, until both concepts dissolve entirety into a recognition that there are countless human communities, that everyone not only belongs somewhere but belongs multiplesomewheres, and yet no one belongs everywhere.
The name for this rejection of the singular normal/Other binary (and its implied singular community operating according to a singular narrative) in favor of a multiplicity is paralogy, and it raises a major challenge to the concept not just of the superhero, but the hero. Namely, if there aren’t actually any monsters, just different communities, what are heroes for?
The answer to that question is the answer to our main question, too: if we know what the new hero is for, than we can construct what that hero needs to be.
We will be coming back to this, many times, before we are through.
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